His Grumman Avenger’s engine ablaze, Lt. George H.W. Bush parachuted from his torpedo bomber’s cockpit into the Pacific some 900 kilometers south of Tokyo, where a US Navy submarine collected him while American fighter-bombers hovered overhead.
The aborted sortie in September 1944, one of the 20-year-old fighter pilot’s 58 combat missions, caught an entirely different man, one Yitzhak Shamir, in between masterminding two assassinations.
The first targeted British High Commissioner Harold McMichael, whose entourage was sprayed with submachine gun bullets outside Jerusalem, an attack he actually survived. The second targeted Lord Walter Moyne, Britain’s minister for the Middle East, who was shot dead by Shamir’s gunmen in Cairo.
Like the inverted assignments of an aviating bomber and an underground hitman, and like the 30-centimeter gap between the towering Bush and the stocky Shamir – the pair’s origins were as distant as Shamir’s humble birthplace in the Pale of Settlement, Rozhinoi, was from affluent Milton, the Waspish Boston suburb where Bush was born.
Add to these disparate roots the two’s coldish personalities and you get the chill, mistrust and acrimony that governed the relationship into which they were forced while the Cold War that dominated their careers drew to a close.
That was then. Now, as a perplexed America mourns its 41st president, six years after Israel buried its sixth prime minister, this odd couple appears to have actually had in common much more than they realized, having effectively co-authored a departing epoch’s epilogue.
THE EPOCH was defined by its two grand wars – the hot one that defeated fascism, and the cold one that undid communism.
Two generations of world leaders were smelted in World War II’s furnaces, whether as warriors, like Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, or as victims, like Margaret Thatcher, who endured the Luftwaffe’s bombardments, Willy Brandt, who fled Nazism to Scandinavia, and Yitzhak Shamir, who lost his parents and two sisters in the Holocaust.
The same went for the Cold War, which shaped the conduct of myriad leaders, good and bad, from Golda Meir and Ronald Reagan to Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet.
For Bush and Shamir, this baggage was particularly heavy, as Bush headed the CIA and Shamir was a senior executive in the Mossad. The Cold War further shaped the two’s mindsets by the one’s service as Nixon’s ambassador to the UN and the other’s as Menachem Begin’s foreign minister.
By sheer coincidence, both men’s lone electoral victories came within seven days of each other in autumn 1988 (Shamir’s previous premiership followed an electoral tie’s rotation government, and the one before it followed a parliamentary vote in the wake of Begin’s resignation), and their defeats both came in 1992.
In the interim, both men would shrewdly exploit the Cold War’s departure, but would also fail to adjust to the approaching era’s norms and demands.
CHALLENGED by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Bush navigated confidently in the epoch’s twilight as he assembled and led the grand coalition of Western, Arab, Asian and post-communist armies that liberated Kuwait.
Back in Europe, with the East German people having elected in winter ’90 an anti-communist government allied with West German leader Helmut Kohl; and with the two Germanys agreeing the following spring to unify their economies – Bush rightly concluded that German unification was both inevitable and desirable.
Shamir, at the same time, failed to see the East Bloc’s approaching collapse, and thus opposed Germany’s reunification. However, he did realize that the Soviet earth was quaking, and thus set out to retrieve from between its tectonic plates both Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry.
This was the context in which the two men clashed, as Bush tried to impose on Shamir a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians in turn for $10 billion in loan guarantees that the post-Cold War immigrants’ absorption required.
Bush managed to drag Shamir to the Madrid Peace Conference in autumn ’91, but its aftermath only cemented his feeling that Shamir was his ambitions’ spoiler; the Cold War lieutenant who would not let its general complete that war’s burial.
A generation on, it is clear the epochal transition underway was about entirely different issues.
FIRST, LIKE most Cold Warriors, Bush and Shamir were both foreign-policy creatures who fell from power on domestic issues – Bush because of his taxation record, Shamir because he was caught off guard by Yitzhak Rabin’s promises to build highways and interchanges, raise education spending, and universalize health care, all of which he indeed did.
Much more crucially than their failure to foresee its agendas, Bush and Shamir would contrast the approaching era’s spirit of frivolity, recklessness and scandal.
That spirit was announced with the Monica Lewinski affair in Washington, and the “hot videotape” embarrassment in Jerusalem, in which Benjamin Netanyahu, while contesting Shamir’s succession as Likud leader, confessed on TV an extramarital affair while alleging someone was out to blackmail him over it.
Both episodes would pale compared with the rise of characters like Silvio Berlusconi, whose third wife left him while he was prime minister, saying he was “consorting with minors,” or Francois Hollande, who after nightfall would wear a black helmet and scoot away from the Elyse to a girlfriend’s apartment; or Donald Trump, who consorted with a porn star at one point and a Playboy model at another.
Can anyone imagine anything like this happening with Bush or Shamir?
Lackluster, business-minded and woefully uncharismatic, they were serious, curious, studious, diligent, responsible patriots whose unassuming style was elbowed by an era in which tweets replace planning, bravado deposes thought, obscenity contaminates rhetoric, and populists – from Washington and Brasilia to Budapest and Manila – pose as statesmen.
As the new era’s menacing uncertainties mount, one truth looms: this week, outside the George Bush Library at College Station, Texas, the era of political sanity was formally laid to rest.
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